By John Hardaker
I wrestle with them all, to a degree, but Sanctuary – the new one from Sydney composer/pianist/accordionist Gary Daley – took more time and listening and thinking and re-listening than any of the others.
Much of it is that Sanctuary is big, very big in every way: the themes, the emotion, the ensemble writing, the very breadth of its conception… big and hard to wrestle to the page.
Much of it also is that music such as this can knock the wind out of my diaphragm, by simply reminding me how far the word falls short of the music – it turns my tongue (and pen) into a wooden clapper. But we can only work with the tools we are given. So…
The core of the Sanctuary suite – and a suite of pieces it is – is Daley’s experience of caring for his mother who was slipping into Alzheimer’s. The ‘sanctuary’ of the title is the comforting world of memories Daley and his family worked to build for her during her suffering.
And yet, in the midst of this dark time, Daley’s first grandchild was born. A little candle in the void. And a powerful reminder of life’s extremes – merciless ravage and sweet new bud.
To express these big life ideas Daley has, across Sanctuary, gone for the primal and the spiritual – the earthy and the ephemeral – in almost equal balance. We have the astounding ‘Introduction,’ with James Daley’s rough hewn field holler shout-sung over a Ligeti-like pulsing chord; a howl in the hollow of the cold universe, but a strong, life-grabbing howl, nonetheless.
We have the afro-groove of ‘Mandolin’ – with its opaque and bluesy Jess Green guitar solo – and the joyous hoe-down of ‘Kindred Chant’, led by the clearwater lap steel of Bruce Reid and Veronique Serret’s fiddle. The hoe-down opens out into the colour-field painting that ‘Interlude No 2’ is; Brett Hirst’s bass, bowed and pizzicato, singing a song of colours overlapping colours.” Green and James Daley sing the folk traditional song ‘The Wandering Boy’ like a Shaker hymn – hardwood pews, cold country chapel, bare to the bone melodically and emotionally. The song tells is of the unique connection between mother and son and needs no prettying up; in some way this makes ‘The Wandering Boy’, with simpatico accordion and National Steel, the heart of Sanctuary.
So we are pulled back and forth across the themes and compositional/improvisational spaces of Sanctuary – floating dissonances here, a boinging jaw-harp there, slide steel melisma, Indian sliding melody, blues, 6/8 Cubano. The astonishing Paul Cutlan growls and yodels out of the middle of ‘Time and Place’. James Daley speaks the words of ‘The Wandering Boy’ over Bartokian blue-grey and smudged turquoise strings in ‘Interlude No 1’.
And yet the suite holds sweet – Daley’s sense of balance and reticent drama puts each thing after each thing in an order that heightens and enriches the drama of this sad-happy journey through his themes of pain and regeneration.
I knew when I found myself wrestling with Sanctuary that it was worth it. Like all works that earn the name Art, it takes some work, no mistake. If only all work could have such a rich result.
Gary Daley: Composer, Musical Director, Piano Accordion and Samples
Paul Cutlan, Alto Saxophone, Clarinet and Bass Clarinet
Veronique Serret , Violin
Oliver Miller, Cello
James Daley, Mandolin and Vocals
Jess Green, Guitar and Vocals
Bruce Reid, Lap Steel Guitar
Brett Hirst, Double Bass
Tunji Beier, Percussion
Album available through Gary Daley’s website